In the final analysis, it shouldn’t matter that only a small number of political candidates can afford to buy their way into the public consciousness via major media campaigns.
Television advertising may be prohibitively expensive, but space on the Internet is virtually free. The Web also offers a much better way to present more in-depth, well-explained views on today’s complex issues than 10-second sound bites on TV news.
The real problem is, how will voters ever be able to check out the fresh and carefully-reasoned views on a new candidate’s web page, if they’re never heard of the candidate? They certainly can’t just type a name they’ve never heard of into a search engine.
Posting things on the Internet is also different from, say putting up placards on telephone poles: nobody ever sees online content as a result of simply passing by it on their way to someplace else. If you’re not exactly there at the site, you’re effectively nowhere, and the content remains as invisible as if it had been swallowed up by a black hole.
The closest thing the Internet offers to being noticed while people are “in the neighborhood” is via ads that appear in search results or on other sites. These ads cost money, though—and thus simply perpetuate the current system where non-famous and non-wealthy would-be candidates can’t be heard.
There's a surprisingly simple solution to the problem: just create a consolidated candidates’ site, where all candidates in a given race can summarize their views and positions for free. Candidates should also be able to insert links to their own websites, and to other external material. This would enable the site to have depth as well as breadth (as much depth, in fact, as an individual voter could reasonably hope for).
Big-name candidates may initially shun such a venture, since they benefit from the current state of affairs where lesser-known challengers are effectively invisible. But once a consolidated site becomes even modestly popular, it would simply look too stodgy, behind the times, and cynically self-aggrandizing for the “big names” to continue avoiding participating in the upstart shared site.
A common political web site could really come alive by adding a candidates-only discussion forum, which anybody could read, but only the candidates and their staffs could update. Let the candidates whale away at one another however they like. Given enough time and space (both in critically short supply in the debates we see on television), any lie, distortion, fib, fudge, half-truth, or shameless hypocrisy expressed on the new service can eventually be exposed. The result will be a better, more thorough, yet still lively political discourse than we’ve seen in a long time.
Again, what’s important in a forum like this is that includes everybody—even those with viewpoints and information that many voters might never actively seek out. While this wouldn’t actually prevent people from sometimes retreating to the comfort of sites where everything is already in agreement with what they believe, to completely avoid a consolidated site where your favorite candidate takes on all comers would be like having a favorite boxer, but hoping he never steps into the ring (or not watching if he does). What kind of champion is that? Or fan?
If we can reduce the barriers to currently-unknown candidates with potentially fresh ideas and get people exposed again, however reluctantly, to information that doesn’t always square with their pre-existing beliefs, in a format that doesn’t overwhelmingly favor “think fast” snappy answers that simply sound good at the moment, we can go a long way toward restoring health to our democracy.
To be sure, this is not likely to come easily. It will probably be resisted by powerful people who benefit from the current broken system. But in the broad sweep of history, systems that benefit more people have an inherent advantage, if we’re willing to fight tenaciously for them.